Tooloulou review

The gator Po' boy and smoked duck pizza at Tooloulou on Harford Road. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / April 6, 2012)

Chef Shawn Lagergren, who co-owns Hamilton's new Cajun spot, Tooloulou, has cooking in his blood. He grew up in Louisiana, learning to cook while perched on a stool in his grandmother's kitchen.

Lagergren may have made his chops in Baltimore restaurants like Luca's and Village Square Cafe. But his love for cooking and his understanding of Cajun flavors? That's all from his Maw Maw. And Maw Maw taught him well.

The tiny Tooloulou, which borrows its musical name from the Cajun word for "crab," does a brisk business, serving traditional Louisiana fare and creatively topped artisan pizzas to an enthusiastic crowd of local regulars.

Located in the former home of Chef Mac's (which has moved down the street), Tooloulou is in good company, sharing its stretch of Harford Road with Chameleon Cafe and Koco's Pub. Unlike its neighbors, Tooloulou is more of a carryout joint than a sit-down restaurant. Even for dining in, orders are placed at the counter.

Much of the space is dedicated to the kitchen, with seating limited to a few small tables and a couple of stools for the narrow bars along each wall. Covered in bright, yellow-checked cloths, the tables are perfect if you're solo or with one or two people — but with a group, go for the carryout. Even on a Monday night, the place draws a crowd.

As it should.

The menu at Tooloulou is straightforward and simple — it's pizza, po' boys and other sandwiches, and a handful of sides, like collard greens and Maw Maw's potato salad — and the rest of the experience is equally casual. Utensils are plastic, napkins are paper and drinks include an impressive array of root beers (BYOB is also an option). The experience is down-home bayou and so are the flavors — and that's a good thing.

We started with a small order of dirty rice (small $2, large $3), which arrived in a pint-sized plastic take-away container. Lagergren's take on the dish is traditional, with the rice and ground beef infused with the flavors of garlic and onion. Each bite was a little spicy, but the heat never overpowered the savory seasoning.

Po' boys — sub-style sandwiches served on French bread — are a staple of Louisiana cuisine, so it's fitting that they're central to the Tooloulou menu. We couldn't resist ordering the gator po' boy ($9), especially once we spotted the alligator head staring at us from the top of the restaurant's counter. Those glassy gator eyes issued a challenge.

Lagergren, who owns Tooloulou with his wife, Megan, orders his alligator directly from Louisiana and dusts it with his own blackening seasoning before dunking it in Natty Boh batter and frying. The meat had a mild taste and tender texture, falling somewhere between fish and chicken. It was a lot like frog legs, but meatier, and showed well inside its slightly spicy, crispy coating.

The rest of the sandwich was just as good. The bread was crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, as a proper baguette should be. The lettuce and tomato were fresh, the house-made Cajun-spiced pickles were tart and the Tabasco remoulade was tangy with a little kick. With all those ingredients, the po' boy had a lot of competing flavors, but it worked.

Our smoked duck pizza ($14 for the 12-inch, $17 for the 16-inch) arrived from the oven ever so slightly charred on the bottom of its crispy thin crust. Topped with tomato sauce, caramelized onion, sweet peppers, goat cheese and house-smoked duck, and drizzled with a balsamic reduction, the pizza's combination of sweet, tart and smoky flavors was sophisticated and appealing, though some of its finer points got lost in the mix. Still, it was an impressive pizza.

Tooloulou doesn't have an official dessert menu, but it serves milkshakes and root beer floats made with ice cream from Prigel Family Creamery. During our visit, the dessert special was strawberry shortcake made with Lagergren's sweet biscuits ,which were the size of a salad plate, fresh strawberries and barely whipped sweet cream ($6). The shortcake teetered on the edge of sweet —- some of us thought it should be more sugary — but the biscuit alone, with its tender texture and slight crumble, was worth the price (and the calories).

Tooloulou is small enough that eavesdropping can't really be helped, but listening in only adds to the charm. Lagergren and his crew have an obviously warm relationship with their regulars: We overheard discussions of everything from pregnancy cravings to the history of Native American tribes in Louisiana. Entertaining and educational to boot.

We left feeling like Tooloulou, with its heartfelt (and technically proficient) cooking and happy atmosphere, was like the gator po' boy, built with quality ingredients and first-class flavor. It's good on every individual measure and, as a whole, is even better than the sum of its parts.

Tooloulou

Back story: Tooloulou is a casual new spot in Hamilton, serving creative pizzas, traditional po' boys and other specialties influenced by owner Shawn Lagergren's Louisiana childhood.

Parking: Street parking and parking in BCSB lot across the street after 4 p.m.

Signature dish: The gator po' boy is more than just a "stunt dish" for those who want to give alligator a shot — Natty Boh-battered alligator, "dressed proper" with lettuce, tomato, spicy pickles and Tabasco remoulade make a tasty, light filling for the traditional Louisiana sandwich.

Where: 4311 Harford Road, Baltimore

Contact: 443-627-8090, tooloulou.com

Open: Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Closed Sundays

Credit Cards: All major credit cards

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭1/2

[Key: Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]